READ : 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Because of the confusion and fear in the face of death that a small group of Christians in Thessalonica were experiencing 2,000 years ago, we have the finest expression of Christian comfort ever written. It’s in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, and it’s all about the risen Lord Jesus Christ and the hope of his return.
I’m reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are
asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that
Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have
fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive,
who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, and with the voice of
an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise
first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the
clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore
comfort one another with these words.
The Christians in Thessalonica had a problem with death. But it wasn’t the problem we
might think. The problem was that in the first blush of their newfound Christian faith
everything seemed so bright and full of hope that many of them became convinced they would
not die at all but would simply live until the return of Christ and the coming of the
kingdom of God. So as you can imagine, when some of them, after a period of time elapsed,
fell sick and died, that created a real problem for the church. What did it mean? Did it
mean somehow that those people weren’t believers, that they weren’t really authentic
Christians and God was judging them by allowing them to die? Or could it mean that perhaps
the return of Christ wasn’t going to happen, that it was somehow some kind of spiritual
experience and not a real literal physical coming.
Or could it be that Christ wasn’t coming at all, that their faith was somehow empty and
false? And so Paul writes to them here in the closing verses of 1 Thessalonians 4 to spell
out for them the substance, the real substance, of Christian hope. Here’s how he
We don’t want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep
(I don’t want you to be ignorant, in other words, concerning those who have died), that
you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
It’s hard for us to imagine the hopelessness that gripped the ancients in the face of
death. They had no expectation of any future at all beyond this life and it made the
experience of losing a loved one almost unbearable to them. The Latin poet Catullus wrote
these lines: “The sun can set and rise again but once our brief life sets there is one
unending night to be slept through.” Or listen to this from the Greek philosopher
Theocritus: “Hopes are for the living. The dead are without hope.”
It’s really the same thing that modern atheists feel. Bertrund Russell was a famous
philosopher and atheist of the early twentieth century, and he once wrote this: “There is
darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no
vastness anywhere, only triviliality for a moment and then nothing.” That is hopelessness.
And into this the gospel bursts like a bombshell with its message that we have hope even
in death because we have a future. And those whom we love are not lost to us forever, but
they too have a future and it’s all wrapped up in Jesus Christ.
Now I want to make one thing clear: I don’t mean to say that Christians don’t feel
grief, that we don’t feel as keenly as anyone the loss of those whom we love. One of the
most moving stories I think I’ve read is of the experience Martin Luther went through when
in 1542 his beloved daughter Magdalena, just thirteen years old, fell ill and died. One of
Luther’s students was living with the Luthers during that time and he wrote down what
Luther said on the night of her death. “I love her very much but Lord, if it is your will
to take her, dear God, I shall be glad to know that she is with you.”
And then when she died, Luther said, “I’m joyful in spirit but I’m sad according to the
flesh. The flesh doesn’t take kindly to this. The separation caused by death troubles me
above all measure. It’s strange to know that she’s surely at peace and that she is well
off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much. I’m angry with myself that I’m unable
to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God, though I do at times sing a little song
and thank God.” “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” That is Christian grief. And
that is Christian hope.
Paul points us to the great events of the end of time. Our hope is not simply built on
sentiment or insubstantial expectations, but on the truth of the Word of God and what it
teaches about what’s to come. “This we declare to you by the Word of the Lord.” And then,
as he spells it out, Paul sums up what will happen when Christ comes again. It’s easy to
remember as he lists these events, we could think of them as the four “Rs”: return,
resurrection, rapture, and reunion. Listen to how Paul unfolds these events for us,
beginning at verse 16:
The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, the voice of an
archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.
That’s Christ’s return, the first “R.” And notice how Paul emphatically describes it as
a public event. There’s nothing secret or hidden about this. As the New Testament says,
“Every eye will see him when he comes again.” It will be physical. Again, it’s not simply
a spiritual “somehow something happens.” But Paul says that three sounds will accompany
this: first, the cry of command. The word that he uses is the word for an officer or a
commander giving an order to his troops, shouting it out over the battlefield. And then
the voice of the archangel in the New Testament, that’s Michael, the great angel who
commands the army of the Lord in the book of Revelation. And finally the sound of the
trumpet of God. Just as Israel blew their trumpets and the walls of Jericho fell down, so
at the end the trumpet of God himself will sound, and all of this will accompany the
return of Christ in glory.
Then the next thing that will happen, says Paul, is resurrection. “The dead in Christ
will rise first.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, he says that all the dead will rise.
Jesus once said in John, chapter 5, that the hour is coming when those who are in their
graves will hear the voice of the Son of God and they will rise again. That’s the cry of
Do you remember the story when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead? “Lazarus,
come forth,” he said. One biblical commentator has a line that I love. He said, “If Jesus
first hadn’t qualified that command by saying `Lazarus,’ every grave within the sound of
his voice would have been emptied as the inhabitants came forth.” Such is the power of the
voice of God.
So: Return, Resurrection, and then Rapture. Now that’s a doctrine that has been
problematic. Christians have disagreed about it. Some have taught a great deal about it.
Actually the word rapture does not occur in the Bible, at least in the original text, but
it refers to a phrase here in verse 17. Paul writes that “we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” In the
Latin translation of the Bible, the word that translate that idea of being caught up is
the word rapto from which we get rapture. So the rapture is a biblical doctrine. It occurs
only here, actually, in the New Testament. But it’s the idea that those who are still
alive on the day of Christ’s return will themselves, having been transformed by a living
resurrection, without passing through death, be caught up, to be rejoined, reunited, not
only with Christ, but with all those believers who have died, who are accompanying him on
his return to earth. I love what one person said about it, “Like iron filings are drawn to
a magnet, so all who love Christ on that day will be drawn to him.” Again, it’s a very
public, visible event. It’s like a gigantic victory parade, a celebration where all will
be reunited. And finally, descend to earth and experience the beginning of the new heavens
and the new earth. And so, Paul concludes, we will always be with the Lord. Reunion
finally. Finally and forever. Not only with Christ but with each other.
Somewhere I ran across a quotation from a letter from the ancient world, a very
poignant and moving letter, I thought. It’s written by a couple to a friend who had lost a
son, and this couple had themselves experienced such a loss. It goes like this:
Irene to Tonuphoris and Philo: I am as sorry and weep over your dear departed one as
I wept for my Didymus. But really in the face of such things, one can do nothing. So
comfort one another.
I don’t want to belittle the importance of that kind of human sympathy. We do seek to
comfort one another and sometimes don’t have words. But what a contrast to what the
apostle can say to those of us who know and love Jesus Christ and are looking for his
return. We don’t have only each other to fall upon with nothing beyond human sorrow. We
have the expectation that those whom we love in God are living in God still, and one day
will return again with him, and so we will always be with the Lord. Comfort one another
with those word.